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Through the Cracks

Hit-and-run suspect was apprehended by area police at least 15 times.

When United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents assigned to the agency's Washington, D.C. Fugitive Operations Team apprehended former Sterling resident Jose Sibrian on Nov. 30 of this year, they brought a man long listed as a federal fugitive immigrant finally into their custody.

Originally ordered deported in absentia by a U.S. Department of Justice immigration judge on Aug. 13, 2001, Sibrian had been on the run from federal immigration officers in the United States for more than half a decade.

In his time as a federal fugitive illegal immigrant, Sibrian was apprehended at least 15 times by officers of the Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Herndon Police Departments, according to police records. Just 10 days before he was apprehended, Sibrian, a heavily-cited driver, allegedly struck and killed Joseph Passarelli, a Herndon resident and father of three, with his 1997 Ford Mustang as the man walked his dog at dawn, according to Herndon police.

Sibrian was officially deported back to his home country of El Salvador by federal agents on Dec. 14. One day later, he was identified as the prime suspect in Passarelli's death. A warrant was issued for his arrest in connection with the death on Dec. 18.

"This is just one of those cases where this individual didn't happen to come to our attention," said Ernestine Fobbs, spokesperson for ICE. "The officers do as much as they can, but sometimes these people just don't come to our attention."

FEDERAL IMMIGRATION enforcement documents have a record of Sibrian first being apprehended by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent while illegally crossing the U.S. border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Tex., about 150 miles southwest of San Antonio. While there are spotty records of how Sibrian came to the attention of immigration authorities, a legal order for his deportation two years later made him an immigrant fugitive in the eyes of federal immigration authorities.

The first record of Sibrian in Northern Virginia came in the form of a Fairfax County traffic charge for improperly display of a license plate on Dec. 3, 2000. That incident was the beginning in a chain of traffic and criminal charges filed in both Fairfax and Loudoun counties, including allegations of misdemeanor trespassing, driving while intoxicated and seven arrests for operating a motor vehicle without a license, according to court records.

The fact that Sibrian was listed as a fugitive in ICE data never came to the attention of local arresting officers.

"They do have cases where they come to us if the person suspected of the crime is an illegal alien, like murders and other heinous crimes," Fobbs said. "We weren't notified of these arrests — we don't plug into the local driver's licenses bureaus."

LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT organizations running checks on an apprehended person's immigration status is not a simple matter, as police have to deal with receiving potentially false information as to the person's identification, or a lack of fingerprint records, according to officer Camille Neville of the Fairfax County Police Department.

Typically, when an individual is arrested for a felony or a more serious offense, that person is fingerprinted and that information is run through both a local state as well as an FBI database to determine if there are any outstanding warrants. Even though all of the charges filed against Sibrian wouldn't require fingerprinting at the time of his arrest, a fingerprint check wouldn't have turned up his fugitive status with ICE, as local police typically do not run information through ICE databases as part of a standard booking procedure, Fobbs said.

All municipal police agencies have access to round-the-clock checks on immigration status with ICE by calling their regional offices, Fobbs said.

But in Fairfax County, determining a suspected criminal's immigration status is not a standard practice and is often not permissible, according to Neville.

"We don't specifically look for illegal aliens because we don't have the federal authority to do this," she said. "If we find someone who admits to being illegal, we'll report that to ICE."

Without that knowledge of his fugitive status, the individual charged with a misdemeanor crime is released on bond and given a court date while ICE officials continue their search.

Had Sibrian been a legal resident of the United States, he could have faced jail time for repeat convictions of driving without a license, according to police.

IMPROVEMENTS IN communication between municipal, state and federal agencies are always being undertaken, and this is no exception when it comes to those fugitives listed as wanted in ICE's databases, Fobbs said.

"We are always trying to improve our communications as we are regularly looking to protect our national security," she said. "That being said, we have been working to improve and enhance the ability of a multitude of law enforcement agencies to help in identifying these criminals sooner."

Increasing communication between law enforcement agencies to more efficiently apprehend criminal illegal immigrants is a top priority for members of the new U.S. Congress, according to U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10).

"This is a big problem," Wolf said. "If a person who committed a crime is an illegal alien, who are they supposed to contact or how are they supposed to report this?"

"I think Fairfax [police officers] did their job, but where are they supposed to go?"

Any bill concerning immigration must also include ways to improve the efficiency of the identification process, he added.

"We're going to do what we can to get something worked out that will address that issue," Wolf said.